Home Biological science MCDB and SMTD students collaborate for Scientist Spotlight Day performance

MCDB and SMTD students collaborate for Scientist Spotlight Day performance


Located in the Natural History Museum, students from the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and the School of Music, Theater and Dance (SMTD) collaborated to present the work of performative art “ Movement Under the Microscope”. The event was part of the Science Communications Fellows program and included a science spotlight day with the aim of raising public awareness of ongoing research. The Scientist Spotlight offers Michigan researchers a chance to share their work with museum visitors and increase accessibility for K-12 students.

The Museum’s Scientist Spotlight Day featured researchers and students from a variety of scientific backgrounds in hopes of increasing engagement and awareness in the academic research community. This event is an ongoing initiative of the museum and requires its science communication fellows to help organize hands-on activities and games for visitors of all ages and interests. Research topics ranged from measuring the relationships between mental health and climate change, as well as the psychology behind COVID-19.

Rackham’s student Claudia Mak explained how photosynthetic cyanobacteria can rid the atmosphere of excess carbon dioxide. Mak also added that the pandemic has revealed a personal need for science communication.

“I’m really interested in science communication in general, speaking to the public and really helping to bridge that gap between the public’s understanding and knowledge of science and how science is actually conducted because I feel like , especially what we’ve seen with the pandemic, there’s a lot of fear around what science actually is,” Mak said. “I want to help people understand what (researchers) are actually doing.”

After the first half of the event, visitors gathered in the museum’s west atrium for the science theater production “Movement Under the Microscope.” This performance showcased the process of cell movement and cytoskeleton functions through human choreography. Morgan DeSantas, assistant professor at MCDB, and Tzveta Kassabova, associate professor of theater and drama at SMTD, combined their respective classes to create the performance.

DeSantas said she received a grant from the National Science Foundation for the event and that the event was important in promoting public awareness and sharing the value of accessible science communication with students.

“The goal was really to develop something that would do content for the museum, that would teach something about the cytoskeleton in a way that was accessible to a wide audience and also give STEM students the experience of conveying abstract ideas from more streamlined way and to give the movement that students experience in science themes,” DeSantas said.

Kassabova said there are similarities between the MCDB and theater, including the emphasis on movement, which made the collaboration possible.

“In a way, both classes work from movement in the different abilities, so it was fun to take ideas from biology and science and see how we can interpret them with movement,” said said Kasabova. “The scale is very different, but it was fun to observe what’s happening in the cell on a very different level and… make it visible to the human eye.”

Jade Marks, the museum’s science communications manager, served as the liaison between the museum and the classes throughout the planning of the show. Marks said involving SMTD students is integral to making science accessible.

“Science really is for everyone and should be for everyone,” Marks said. “It can be fun. It can be beautiful. It can be inspiring. And so I hope this performance is that of all of these students (SMTD), and they continue to seek out these kinds of collaborations that push them out of their comfort zone as their professional career progresses.

Kassabova said the performance helped STEM students gain a new appreciation for physical intelligence and movement. LSA senior Vaishnavi Krishnan, a member of the MCDB class involved in performance, said she had no art or performance background. However, she said she enjoyed the openness of the event and that it taught her new ways to visualize biological concepts, like polymerization.

“I think, especially in science classes, sometimes it’s very difficult to be able to visualize some of the processes going on, because it’s on such a small scale, and it can sometimes be so abstract,” Krishnan said. “I think this course has been a great way for me to see that you can actually represent these things and in a very simple way.”

During the event, the museum was also visited by various eighth-grade classes from local Michigan schools. Marks said middle and high school students are being asked to decide career paths and career choices at an increasingly early age and said she hopes students don’t see the arts and sciences at odds with each other, but rather as complementary fields of study.

“It doesn’t have to be science or the arts or the humanities versus technology or whatever way we try to analyze and divide our world,” Marks said. “It’s good to love science and to love art, and it’s good to work at the intersection of these disciplines. It is a meaningful and fulfilling place.

Daily News reporter Sirianna Blanck can be reached at sirianna@umich.edu.